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A Good Cause Plus Great Food Makes for a Unique Dining Experience

The beautiful interior of Oak and the table setting. Photos by David Higbee

I’m not a food critic. So when I went to last night’s 17th Cafe Momentum pop-up dinner, I was a little worried about if I could do the food justice. I wanted to capture the evening, but my inability to describe food as anything other than “yummy” or “delicious” had me concerned.

But the great thing about Cafe Momentum is that although it pops up at the hottest restaurants which are making some of Dallas’ best food, it’s about more than just the plate that’s set in front of you. It’s about the program and its mission. It’s about the young men who wait on you and plate your food. It’s about their stories. And it makes for a dining experience unlike any other in Dallas.
Cafe Momentum has been talked about quite a bit since its launch more than a year ago. Recently, Carol wrote about it and its founder, Chad Houser, formerly of Parigi but now full time with the program.

The premise of Cafe Momentum is great: teach juvenile offenders who have gone through Youth Village’s culinary program how to work in a restaurant—from front-of-house to the kitchen. When the young men finish the program, they’ll not only have experience but the names of some of Dallas’ best chefs on their résumé. The ultimate goal of the program is to have a stand-alone restaurant (Houser is currently searching for a location). But to get there, Cafe Momentum needs money. And that’s where the pop-up dinners come from.

Last night’s dinner at Oak, our restaurant of the year, was my first to attend. Before I got there, I had some questions. So, after the jump, is a guide for Cafe Momentum newbies.

1. Sign up for their newsletters. I didn’t realize the next tickets were going on sale until the day before. So be sure to sign up for Cafe Momentum’s newsletters so you know which restaurant the pop-up is happening in and you know when tickets go on sale. This month’s tickets sold out in one (yes, one) minute. (Full disclosure: my ticket was comped, but I bought my husband/photographer’s ticket.)

2. Arrive on time and spend some time mingling. I followed my first rule. Not my second. I should have spent more time talking to the people in the room. There were great people, and I missed out on their conversations.

3. It’s open seating, so be prepared to chat and meet someone new.

4. Don’t ask the young men to clear your wine glasses. They’re not 21, so they can’t handle your empty glasses. Wait for the staff of the restaurant to come by. The staff, by the way, donates its time and comes in on a Sunday evening to help out. Oak staff provided one-on-one mentorship for each of the eight young men from the Youth Village. Their experience and knowledge is invaluable to the men.

5. Take time to talk to the young men. At the beginning of the dinner, Houser quoted Frederick Douglas: “It is easier to build stronger children than repair broken men.” All these young men are on the path to being broken men, Houser said. But they’re taking action to change their course. We even heard from one of the graduates about what the program did for him and his plans for his life and his 2-month-old baby’s life (who was in attendance). So ask the young men about the program. Let them know you’re proud of them.

6. Comment on the young men’s appearance. At last night’s dinner, all eight showed up in church clothes—nice slacks, button-down shirts, and ties. These are not standard wear for these men. They dressed up for the event and wanted to impress their guests.

7. Enjoy the meal. We were served a light and refreshing salad of baby root vegetables. Our second course was a seared bronzino with artichoke and calabrese peppers and white anchovy vinaigrette. The third meal was a deliciously tender braised veal cheek with stone ground grits. To top it off, we had a carrot cake bread pudding with cream cheese ice cream topped with fried carrots. (I’m proud of myself for listing all that without using “yummy.”)

8. Learn about the program. The dream of the Cafe Momentum and Youth Village staff is to have a stand-alone restaurant where they can give these young men a full-time job and pay them $10 an hour, which is $1.17 more than a livable wage in Dallas County. In a year and a half, the program will start accepting women, which means more lives to change.

And that’s it. That’s all you need to know. Since its launch in the summer of 2011, Cafe Momentum has raised $300,000. It’s well on its way to realizing its dream of having its own restaurant. When that restaurant opens, I will dine there often. Until then, I’ll enjoy going to Dallas’ best restaurants and seeing the relationships formed between the restaurant staff and the men who have decided to make a change in their lives.

 

Our dinner (clockwise from left): baby root vegetables, seared bronzino, carrot bake bread pudding; braised veal cheek with grits. Photos by David Higbee.